Rugby League World Cup: England beat Tonga 20-18 to set up final with Australia

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Rugby League World Cup semi-final
Tonga (0) 18
Tries: Junior, Havili, Lolohea Goals: Taukeiaho (3)
England (12) 20
Tries: McGillvary, Widdop, Bateman Goals: Widdop (4)

England reached a first World Cup final since 1995 as they survived a late Tonga comeback in Auckland to set up a meeting with 10-time winners Australia.

Wayne Bennett’s side were leading 20-0 with seven minutes remaining after tries from Jermaine McGillvary, Gareth Widdop and John Bateman.

But Tevita Pangai Junior and Siliva Havili then crashed over at a sold-out Mount Smart Stadium.

And Tuimoala Lolohea added a third to almost clinch it with seconds to go.

England will face the Kangaroos, who thrashed Fiji 54-6 in the other semi-final, in the final in Brisbane next Saturday, 2 December.

A breathtaking seven minutes of sport

England’s last appearance in the final came 22 years ago with Denis Betts, now among the coaching staff, captaining the side in a 16-8 defeat by Australia at Wembley.

Every tournament since has ended in a semi-final defeat, each one by New Zealand, but it looked with seven minutes to go that England were cruising into next Saturday’s showpiece.

England’s semi-final record since 1995
1995 – England 25-10 Wales
2000 – England 6-49 New Zealand
2008 – England 22-32 New Zealand
2013 – England 18-20 New Zealand

At 20-0 down, Tonga had other ideas.

The Pacific Islanders came back from 16-2 down to beat New Zealand in the group stage and, backed by a vocal Tongan support in Auckland, almost engineered a comeback of even greater proportions.

First, after 73 minutes, Junior edged his way over the England line to cross for a try that was eventually confirmed by the video referee – it looked like a well-deserved consolation.

But the nerves began to kick in for Bennett’s side as Tonga kept the ball alive before Havili broke through several would-be tacklers to make the score 20-12.

Two minutes later and England’s advantage was reduced to two points. Lolohea again breaching England’s line to put Tonga within one score of their first ever World Cup final.

McGillvary, one of England’s best performers at this World Cup, stole a key intercept to win the ball back with England just needing to see out the final 90 seconds, but the winger lost the ball in a tackle to give Tonga one last attack.

And when Andrew Fifita found a route through it looked like England’s tournament was yet again going to end in semi-final heartbreak.

But Elliot Whitehead’s tackle forced the prop to drop the ball, and that was enough for England to hold on to reach a first final in since 1995.